Student-Led Conferences

 

-by Krista Taylor

Montessori philosophy uses the “Golden Triangle” to represent the strength and importance of the relationship between teachers, students, and parents, but Gamble, like many other urban schools, struggles with lower levels of parent involvement than we’d like.

It is important to remember that many parents experience anxiety about involvement in their child’s school. This may be because of negative school experiences they had themselves, worries that either their child or their parenting skills will be critiqued, or concerns about their ability to understand the academic instruction that is being provided.

I didn’t fully understand the depth of this tension until I attended my first parent-teacher conference in the role of a parent. Despite the many times I had sat on the teacher side of the table, and regardless that my child was doing well, and I understood what the conversation was going to be about, I was nervous.

What exactly would the teacher say about my child? If my child is experiencing challenges, how will that reflect on me? How can I both make a good impression and serve as an advocate for my child?

As a teacher, there are strategies to alleviate some of this discomfort, which then in turn, allows the parent or guardian to engage fully with school staff to support the academic and developmental growth of the child.

Proactive Conference Strategies

  • Begin each interaction with something positive about the child
  • Assume that the parent or guardian is doing the best that they can; however do not assume that they already know how to address concerns.
  • Do not label a child; rather describe the behavior you have observed
  • Open the door to further communication
  • Remember that you are teaching other people’s children; that every student you serve is someone’s child, and they have chosen to share this gift with you.

All schools hold parent-teacher conference nights. In Montessori programs, these look different. Our conferences are Student-Led Conferences, so called because the student leads the meeting. It is the student whose performance is being discussed; therefore the student is in charge of the conversation.

At Gamble, we require all students to hold these conferences at least once, and often twice, a year. This is part of the school contract that our students and parents sign upon enrollment. To manage this, we hold two conference nights each quarter, rather than the required one. Since students lead the conference, multiple conferences happen simultaneously, with teachers checking in at each table to provide information and clarification.

Templates guide students in running the conference. The templates vary according to program, teacher, and grade level, but generally include the following:

  • how to formally introduce your parents and teachers
  • preparing materials for presentation
  • identifying strengths
  • noting concerns
  • setting explicit goals for moving forward.

This process allows the child to self-report on how things are going at school, and to take responsibility both for what is going well, and for what is not. Additionally, when information is shared together, and everyone hears the same message at the same time, it creates a sense of collaboration between the student, the parent, and the teacher – strengthening that “Golden Triangle.”

It is yet another component of “what we do here,” and another way to develop a school culture of belonging. This is illustrated by the conference we had with Deon and his mother last spring.

Deon had been highly disruptive in the classroom – he had more than 40 logged disciplinary offenses for the year. This was a difficult conference to hold; it was challenging to find anything positive to say. It could easily have turned into a conflict, but because of the way we conduct conferences, the outcome was one of unified support. Deon’s mother ended our meeting with a request for a group hug, and with these powerful words, “We are all on the same team – Team Deon.”

Parents can be a teacher’s greatest allies. Every interaction a teacher has with students’ parents or guardians can serve as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship, even if the conversation is a difficult one.   Conference nights can be powerful for all parties involved; never miss an opportunity to connect with a child’s family, to be a member of that child’s “team.”

 

Valorization of the Adolescent

 

-by Krista Taylor

The human personality . . . must be strengthened in his principles by moral training and he must also have practical ability in order to face the difficulties of life. Men with hands Slide10and no head, and men with head and no hands are equally out of place in the modern community.  –Montessori

While there are many things that secondary Montessori education is, and at least an equal number of things that it isn’t, it is these words that perhaps encapsulate best the heart of the work. Montessori broadly defined the development of the realms of both the head and the hands as “valorization.” More specifically, this is the development of: joy, optimism, confidence, dignity, self-discipline, initiative, independence, helpfulness, mindfulness, and the ability to work with others.

Valorization is a process, not a product. As such, it is difficult to measure and to track in the way that so much of education is expected to be documented today. Rather, it is caught in glimpses that may at first be fleeting, but which grow and strengthen over time. I was fortunate to catch one of those fleeting glimpses while grading essays in which students argued whether their academics, behavior, and leadership indicated that they were ready for promotion to the next grade.

Marcus is one of my more challenging students. He came to Gamble Montessori a year ago from an alternate program for students with significant behavioral needs; therefore it was not surprising that things haven’t been smooth sailing. In his promotion essay, Marcus wrote, in part:

“I am kind of proud of my grades because compared to last year I can see I have grown stronger academically. My second quarter grades were kind of disappointing because I did worse than first quarter. My grades are not perfect, but I will continue to improve so that I can be promoted. My behavior, to be honest, is not very good. I have had lots of attitude problems, meltdowns, suspensions, and other consequences that come from my behavior. I also have made lots of improvement from last year, but improvement or not, I understand that the kind of behavior I show is not acceptable at all. I know I have the potential and skills to make good decisions when I am angry. I’m not sure if I am a leader to be honest. I guess I showed leadership at Fall Camp. I was able to help people who had their canoes flipped over. I also stepped up when I offered to clean up some things at the end of camp. I showed a big leadership role when a friend’s mother died. I decided to be with him as much as I could to support him and to make sure he knew he did not have to go through it alone. In my recent group project, I showed great leadership by helping and making sure my partner got comfortable with our project. So I guess I am a good leader, which is also a great reason why I should be promoted.”

In this brief writing, where Marcus seems to be convincing even himself of his personal growth, there is evidence of optimism, confidence, dignity, self-discipline, initiative, independence, helpfulness, and the ability to work with others. Marcus is in the process of becoming valorized. This did not occur arbitrarily; the entirety of a secondary Montessori program is built intentionally around this goal. Secondary Montessori programs have many avenues through which valorization occurs.

Components include:

  • a sense of belonging created through daily morning meetings, a practice of sharing acknowledgment, and care-taking of the environment
  • Weekly goal setting, self-reflection and time-management skills
  • Field experiences where students engage in personal challenge, cooperative team building, and finding awe in the world around them
  • Academics that are cross-curricular, connect to big idea themes, and nurture interest and engagement

Valorization is what results over time when students are immersed in these experiences on a regular basis.

So, yes, Marcus, I, too, think that you are capable of being a great leader, and I have been blessed to serve as one of your guides through your process of transformation. Witnessing the emergence of valorization is the greatest joy of teaching.

 

Secondary Montessori — New Curriculum Rooted in Old Pedagogy

-by Krista Taylor

The secondary Montessori movement was essentially begun in the mid 1990s with the formation of Clark Montessori School  (Cincinnati, OH) and The Hershey Farm School Adolescent Program. (Huntsburg, OH) Today there are an estimated 400 Montessori adolescent programs worldwide – this is miniscule in proportion to a total of more than 20,000 Montessori programs overall. Currently there are only 2 American Montessori Society affiliated secondary Montessori training programs for teachers – Cincinnati Montessori Secondary Teacher Education Program– through which both Jack and I earned our credential – and Houston Montessori Center, which has locations in both Texas and California.

It is exciting to be a part of something that remains in the process of self-creation. While secondary Montessori education was something that Maria Montessori envisioned, she did not develop a secondary program, herself, instead leaving it to future generations to do so.

Those of us working in Montessori secondary programs today are that future generation of whom Montessori spoke. Turning her philosophy into comprehensive practice is our “big work.”

Montessori identified four distinct planes of development: birth to age 6, ages 6 to 12, ages 12 to 18, and ages 18-24. Her work initially focused on the first two planes; however, during the 1920s, she began studying the needs of the adolescent. Her philosophy on the educational needs of children in this third plane of development can be found in her book, From Childhood to Adolescence, which was first published in 1948. In that text, she writes:

“The need that is so keenly felt for a reform of secondary schools concerns not only an educational, but also a human and social problem. Schools, as they are today, are adapted neither to the needs of adolescents nor to the times in which we live. Society has not only developed into a state of utmost complication and extreme contrasts, but it has now come to a crisis in which the peace of the world and civilization itself are threatened. More than to anything else it is due to the fact that the development of man himself has not kept pace with that of his external environment.”

It is almost eerie how resonant her words remain today.

Montessori had a vision for a more developmentally appropriate model of learning; she referred to adolescents as “Erdkinder,” or “Earth’s children” because she believed that they were best served by working outside the classroom in a farm-like natural environment. While this is unrealistic in light of the many requirements of modern education, the pioneers in the secondary Montessori movement have used this philosophy as a foundation, and have outlined curricula for effective Montessori programs that also align with state and district academic requirements. The fundamental elements are outlined below. Many of these overlap with what would be expected in any Montessori classroom, while others are specific to a secondary program.

Establishment of a peaceful community

  • daily student-led community meetings
  • fostering a sense of belonging through communal learning and collaborative work
  • multi-age groupings in classrooms
  • modeling and instruction in grace and courtesy

Emphasis on the Nobility of Work

  • implementation of over-arching developmental themes
  • cross-curricular integration
  • differentiation and choice of work
  • uninterrupted work periods
  • seminar discussions which explore big themes, differences in perspectives, and complex issues of our time
  • student-led conferences
  • intentional fostering of executive functioning tasks: time management, organization, decision making, self-reflection, and goal setting

Connections to Cosmic Education

  • incorporating opportunities to cultivate a sense of global citizenship and harmony with the universe
  • nurturance of a spirit of generosity, abundance, awe, and wonder
  • opportunities for service learning
  • real-world experiences including engagement with the natural world

In this model, the teacher serves as a guide to the community of learners. She supports the valorization (growth of positive qualities) of the adolescent, demonstrates wisdom, caring, and thoughtfulness, fosters cooperation and collaboration, and is responsive to the many needs of her students.

Secondary Montessori education is a burgeoning practice. One that by many accounts was initiated a mere 25 years ago, but which is rapidly gaining momentum. It is the type of instruction that so many of us have been seeking – teachers, students, and families alike.

 

 

 

 

This “Montessori Thing”

 

-by Krista Taylor

Anyone connected to education today has heard the following espoused as best practices:

  • Project-Based Learning
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Social-Emotional Learning
  • Use of Manipulatives and Hands-On Activities
  • Real-World Experiences
  • Rigor
  • High Expectations

These are cutting-age, modern instructional practices, right?

Wrong.

Maria Montessori first began developing and implementing these techniques in the early 20th century.Maria Montessori

She was a visionary, a pioneer, and a barrier breaker. It is only now, as much of her methodology is being embraced as research-proven practice in traditional, non-Montessori classrooms, that her brilliance is being fully revealed.

Breaking Barriers

Maria Montessori defied convention from the very beginning. She was born in Italy in 1870 during a time when women’s roles were restricted. Despite the discouragement of her father, she dreamed of becoming a doctor.

Initially denied acceptance to medical school, she was eventually allowed to enroll; obtaining admission, however, was only the first of the challenges she would face. She endured hostility and harassment from some of her classmates and professors. Additionally, because it was considered untoward for women and men to be in the presence of a naked body together, in order to do the requisite cadaver dissections, she was required to work alone and at night. Despite this adversity, she graduated from medical school in 1896 and became Italy’s first female physician.

Pioneering

Her early practice involved working with children with disabilities, and it was this work that ultimately drew her to education. She was a keen observer and data collector. She deduced that children are innately drawn to learning and discovery. From this, she began developing manipulatives to support student learning. Anyone who has had the privilege of witnessing division of fractions using the skittles, or multiplication of polynomials using the binomial or trinomial cube (a material that is first introduced to three year olds) understands the magic that transpires when the “what we do” of mathematic algorithms becomes supported by the “why we do it” that comes with concrete comprehension. I have seen many adults become wide-eyed when the “flip the second fraction and multiply” rule for fraction division becomes clear once demonstrated using Montessori materials, or the complex algebraic concepts built into the binomial cube and trinomial cube is revealed.  One of the most quintessential Montessori materials is the moveable alphabet, which allows very young children to successfully tackle the complex tasks of reading and writing, and to find pride and joy in doing so.

Visionary

In 1906, Montessori was invited to oversee a school for children from low-income families in Rome’s inner city. It was here that she determined that her educational methods were equally effective for children without disabilities. From this work, the Montessori Method was established. This, however, was only the beginning. As noted at the beginning of this article, many of the “newest” educational practices have roots in Montessori’s model. While Montessori education is far too complex of a subject to fully describe here, there are five fundamental components, which capture much of the philosophy. These were revolutionary ideas when Montessori first introduced them; today they are standard practice in most well run classrooms – traditional and Montessori, alike.

Beauty and Atmosphere

  • Natural or soft lighting
  • Conscientious use of color
  • Well-organized/not cluttered
  • Inclusion of plants and/or animals
  • Well-maintained materials and furnishings
  • Decorated spaces that do not create distractions
  • Variety of work spaces: tables, individual desks, floor, counters, etc.
  • Student supplies readily accessible

Structure and Order

  • Checklists/Work Plans
  • Clear expectations for academics and behavior
  • Directly communicated and reinforced routines and procedures
  • Structured assignments which provide models, rubrics, guidelines, and control for error

Freedom with Responsibility

  • Choice in assignments related to level of difficulty and/or method of presentation
  • Development of self-monitoring through use of controls,checklists,planners, etc.
  • Student-led conferences
  • Classroom jobs
  • Morning meeting roles

Reality and Nature

  • Real-world experiences
  • Engagement with the natural world
  • Development of life skills
  • Use of tools appropriate to the task and developmental level

Grace and Courtesy

  • Classroom jobs
  • Responsibility for public space clean-up
  • Classroom Meetings which include Greetings and Acknowledgments
  • Character Strength Development (normalization and valorization)

Many of today’s best practice innovations aren’t innovations at all. The Montessori Method has been educating children this way for 100 years.

 

Krista Taylor

Paying Back Privilege

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     -by Krista Taylor

What is privilege? 

There exist in America two very separate worlds that rarely intertwine – the worlds of the haves and the have-nots. The difference between the two is privilege.

Privilege is the presence of a safety net. The distance between incidents of bad luck and ensuing devastation. Those with privilege can withstand problems, often without long-term consequences, because they can pay for the necessary health care; have the resources and education to find another job; have access to generational support to keep the bills paid when finances are tight; and can seek out services to help sustain through addiction, mental illness, or disability.

In America, anyone can ultimately become successful, but for some the pathway to achieving this success is smoother than it is for others.

I was a child of privilege. My pathway to success was made smoother by a number of factors outside of my control.

To start with, I am white. The fact that this makes things easier is something that we are often uncomfortable discussing, but this privilege of birth is one whose power I suspect I could only truly understand were it to be taken away. Suffice it to say that we live in a society where skin color continues to matter.   Privilege, however, extends far beyond the gene pool.

My mother had good pre-natal healthcare, and therefore I was born without deficiencies or complications. I lived in a household full of books where I was regularly read to, and where I witnessed people reading often. I didn’t worry about having enough food, and my parents did not have to make difficult choices about the cost of food in relation to its nutritional value. I lived in a safe neighborhood where I had the freedom to independently explore the world for hours on end. My parents worked regular schedules, so I was consistently supervised outside of school hours.

Education was always treated in my household as something of critical importance. I was enrolled in high-performing schools, and therefore, I was surrounded by peers who had the same perspective about academic achievement that I did. Additionally, my family has college-graduates going back for multiple generations. Therefore, not only was there a powerful expectation that a college degree was a given for me, my parents had a clear understanding of how to make this happen.

Each of these things made my life a little easier, my success a little more guaranteed.

None of these benefits are things that I made happen. They are all things that occurred irrespective of my effort – that is privilege.

I was never truly hungry or malnourished.

I never worried about where I was going to sleep at night.

I was never unable to go outside because of safety concerns.

I never had changing, or absent, caregivers.

I never questioned the value of education.

I am privileged.

I know this because every day I work with students who do not have this same experience. Their road is a little harder; their success not as certain.

I believe that with my privilege comes the responsibility to work to even the playing field for others.

Those of us with privilege must seek opportunities to make the journey easier, to grease the wheels, to change the outcome. Acting on these opportunities will bring us one step closer to equality, one step closer to a nation where no one is born with the cards stacked against them, one step closer to the ideals upon which America was founded.

Eight months ago, as a result of being named the Hawkins Educator of the Year, I had a check for $10,000 placed in my hands. It is because of this philosophy of “paying back privilege” that I did not hesitate in handing the money over to the Gamble Montessori Foundation to support students in paying for some of the costs of our program.

It is profound to have the opportunity to potentially “change the outcome” for a child. If I can successfully do that for even just one, it will have been enough.

It is my opportunity to pay back privilege. I can’t imagine what greater gift I could give.

Krista Taylor